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April 12, 2012

Inside The Park Blog

An Unlikely Encounter

by Bradford Doolittle

CHICAGO—One-four-four-five-four-one. No, that's not a Tommy Tutone update, it's the game-by-game run totals for the Cubs in their first six outings of the season. They broke out with eight runs off Milwaukee ace Zack Greinke on Thursday, but questions still abound about Chicago's offense.

Here's one question that was asked of first-year manager Dale Sveum before the game: Can patience be taught? And, no, it wasn't me asking it, though it's something that I used to discuss with Royals general manager Dayton Moore back when I was in Kansas City. This was even before the Royals went out and signed Jeff Francoeur.

Moore used to talk about how important it was for young players in the minors to be aggressive in their approaches to learn what their hands could do in different parts of the zone. Eventually, the thought was, the player would learn what works and what doesn't, and as his pitch recognition improved, plate discipline would follow. That was the idea, anyway.

So there was Sveum, asked to answer similar, very general, but fundamental, question about teaching a facet of hitting.

"It's probably the most difficult thing to do," Sveum said. "Everybody has different personalities when they hit. The anxiety level when they have two strikes on them is a big problem with a lot of people. Even one strike, for that matter. The anxiety level gets really high with some people, and they want to get the at-bat over with before they get to that point. Of course it compounds with swinging early and hitting into early outs."

The anxiety part of the equation is something I'd never really heard explained in quite that manner. The topic of plate discipline has been broached more often in Chicago since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer arrived in town with their new-fangled computer machines. After the Cubs went hyper-aggressive against Stephen Strasburg on Opening Day, I actually heard a member of the media say, "I thought we were playing Moneyball now." I'm pretty sure he was serious.

Moore also told me something I've heard from other front office and scouting types, which is that players are innately aggressive or innately patient. You can encourage improvement one way or another, but change is likely only going to occur in the margins. If you want patient hitters, you have to identify them before they are brought into the organization. Sveum doesn't exactly see it that way.

"Yes and no. A lot of times, you'll see guys gradually get more patient," Sveum said. "It doesn't come too often in the minor leagues. You get to the point where you just get tired of swinging at pitches. A lot of times, when you get to that 2,000 at-bat mark in the big leagues, things start coming together a little bit as far as patience."

Still, to me, it's silly to think that the Cubs were going to become a more patient team unless they acquired more patient players. Of course, the team started its makeover by targeting guys like Ian Stewart, David DeJesus, and Anthony Rizzo, who is killing it in the minors so far.

For what it's worth, the Cubs' offensive troubles so far haven't come from a lack of discipline. Chicago ranks in the top half of the National League in walks.

AN UNLIKELY ENCOUNTER: Baseball conversations spring up in the strangest places. Yesterday, I had to accompany someone downtown to the hospital because they were undergoing a procedure that wouldn't allow them to drive home. While waiting, I slipped across the street to a Mad Men-looking lounge for a beer. There was an elderly lady sitting at the bar drinking a glass of Zinfandel. She looked to be in her late 70s or early 80s.

The end of Wednesday's Cubs-Brewers game was on television, and she noticed me watching. After a while, she asked if I was a baseball fan, to which I replied that I was.

"Me too," she said, introducing herself as Virginia. (Not her real name, but it's in that vein.)

Virginia asked me what I liked about the game and about certain events in Chicago baseball and whether I remembered them. It was a nice chat. Then she told me that once upon a time, she was close friends with the traveling secretary of the Pittsburgh Pirates. She told me about partying with Billy Martin after the 1960 World Series and what a sour mood he was in. ("A sore loser!") She told me how Casey Stengel came into the bar and for two hours, received well-wishers with grace and patience.

"He was a very nice man," Virginia said.

And you, Virginia, are a very nice lady. Invariably, the conversation steered to what she really wanted to talk about. She had just come from her doctor, who had told her that they could no longer treat her cancer. The glass of wine she was drinking was her first drink in over five years. When I left, she was just starting to sip from a snifter of Tia Maria. Used to be her favorite.

A PROGRAMMING NOTE: I just sort of jumped into the ITP blog without a proper introduction. Sorry about that, but here you go: welcome to the blog version of my "Inside the Park" series of articles. This is where I'll pass along stuff that I hope will be interesting, useful, and amusing from my forays to major-league ballparks all over the city of Chicago. I'll post something from every game I go to, and I go to the vast majority of games played on both ends of town.

However, I don't go to every game, particularly when baseball overlaps with the NBA season. Today, as I did last Thursday, I'm pulling a twofer by going straight from Wrigley Field to the United Center for tonight's Bulls-Heat game. For the most part, if a Bulls game conflicts with a Cubs or White Sox game, I'll go to the basketball game. (With exceptions, such as next week's epic Washington Wizards matchup.)

When you don't see a fresh ITP blog post from me, it means I wasn't able to make it to the game.

GETTING A BREATHER: An easy line of questioning in every manager's pre-game chat is why Player X is out of the lineup. The question usually goes, "Is Player X just getting a day?" The standard answer is, "Yeah, we're just giving him a breather." Sometimes, a talkative skipper might add, "He's scufflin' a little bit."

Each side had a Player X in the Cubs-Brewers game. Milwaukee rested third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who is 2-for-22 so far. However, he's driven in five runs, which afforded Ron Roenicke the chance to rave about his timely hitting. Meanwhile, the Cubs sat Marlon Byrd, who is off to a 1-for-21 start. Dale Sveum said that Byrd "needs to get more linear with his swing. It's all rotational right now." So there you go.

LOOMING ZACK ATTACK: You might think that given my history in Kansas City and the fact that Zack Greinke was locked into a promising matchup with Chicago's Matt Garza on Thursday that I might want to write about him. You'd be right. I've been gathering material on Greinke since last season and will be writing some sort of blowout on him later this summer. But not yet.

My next ITP feature will be on the Detroit Tigers, who visit Chicago starting tomorrow to kick off the White Sox's first homestand of the season. As for Greinke, he gave one of his typically uninspiring post-game pressers in the bowels of Wrigley after the game. He only talks after starts, so he was asked about his contract limbo.

"I was told that's between my agent and the team," Greinke said.

LIL' HELP: With two outs in the fourth and Steve Clevenger at second, David DeJesus chopped a grounder up the middle to Milwaukee shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez fielded the ball cleanly and threw to first, where … no one was there to field it. Mat Gamel had wandered onto the infield grass, apparently confident that someone else would cover the first base bag. If anyone has the slightest clue why Gamel came off the bag on a grounder hit to the left side of the infield, please drop me a line.*

* According to Roenicke, Gamel broke off first too soon because he didn't think Gonzalez was going to be able reach it. Lesson learned. He added that, overall, Gamel has adjusted well to his new position. The quote from Gamel that was passed along from the Milwaukee beat writers: "I f****d up."

PRESS NOTES TIDBIT OF THE DAY: Assuming Ramirez hits his next homer as a third sacker, he'll break a tie with Ron Cey for sole possession of eighth place on the all-time list of homers hit as a third baseman. In front of him: Mike Schmidt (509), Eddie Mathews (486), Chipper Jones (377), Graig Nettles (368), Matt Williams (359), Ron Santo (337), and Gary Gaetti (332).

SWEET EMOTION: Garza was one out from a complete game shutout when Norichika Aoki hit a comebacker. He fielded it cleanly. Garza, one of the more intense and emotional players this side of Carlos Zambrano, tried to throw it through first baseman Bryan LaHair, and the ball sailed into the stands. That came after his 119th pitch, which I believe is the most thrown so far in the early part of the MLB season, and Sveum had to replace him. 

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

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